“I’m just adding things to my obituary.”
With that off-the-cuff remark, Mill Valley City Councilman Ken Wachtel wields his trademark wit to deflect a question about the importance of our (admittedly contrived) .
But more than most politicians, and certainly more than those you might find roaming the streets of New Hampshire today, Wachtel doesn’t hide behind the you-need-me-more-than-I-need-you veneer.
He loves the gig - especially the past year of wielding the gavel in the council's annual mayoral rotation - and he doesn’t play it cool.
Wachtel began his stint as the city’s mayor in December 2010 by donning a royal crown bestowed on him by Councilwoman Shawn Marshall. In July, he brought a six-pack of Miller High Life beer to celebrate the council’s approval of a design for the long-delayed overhaul of Miller Avenue. And he concluded his tenure in December by bowing before Councilwoman Stephanie Moulton-Peters and Marshall to be ‘knighted” with a light saber.
A few days before he handed the gavel over to new Mayor Garry Lion, Wachtel threw on a pair of ice skates and jumped onto the synthetic ice skating rink at Winterfest on Depot Plaza. He didn’t exactly look comfortable, nor did he take a token lap around the rink and bail. Instead, he lingered, not caring if a face-plant awaited him.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more joyful mayor, someone who totally reveled in the job,” Marshall says. “It’s a blast. We’ve all loved it. But Ken ate it, he drank it, he slept it.”
If you ask Wachtel’s colleagues, the jokes and jovial attitude belie a serious dedication to the local community that spans from youth sports, through his six years on the Planning Commission and now into his second term on the council.
At the same meeting where he donned the royal crown, he did so with four cameras pointed at him during the . The streamed and archived video fulfilled a vow Wachtel made to improve direct communication and transparency at City Hall. While webcasting had been talked about for a while, Wachtel pushed to have approximately $40,000 set aside for it in the city's capital improvement budget.
“He pushed hard enough that it was put into place,” says former Councilman Clifford Waldeck, who co-chaired Wachtel’s 2007 campaign for City Council. “You don’t have to abandon your family to find out what’s going on in the city, and it actually engages people to come to the meetings more often. Hats off to Ken for making it happen.”
Community engagement is Wachtel’s hallmark issue, one he says he's taken seriously ever since then-Mayor Betsey Cutler sat him down in his early days on the planning commission to emphasize the fact that commissioners and councilmembers might be the only communication some residents ever have with , and they had to respect that responsibility.
Wachtel, a father of four and former president of the , says that while webcasting was his biggest priority as mayor, he was the most emotionally invested in getting the city to after two nine-year-old Mill Valley youth soccer players who died nearly 25 years apart.
Councilman Andy Berman served six years on the planning commission with Wachtel and another four on the council with him, and they’ve developed a great rapport over the years, Berman says.
“We know each other well; our approach, our interests, our concerns and preferences … and our families,” he says. “It is a friendship few folks ever achieve in a lifetime, and my life - and Mill Valley - are better for it.”
Ken Wachtel grew up in Encino, Calif., the youngest of three boys who are six and nine years older. He went to UC-Berkeley in 1969 and spent another three years at Boalt Hall after graduation.
“I had always wanted to go to People’s Park,” Wachtel says. “My hobby during college was collecting used tear gas canisters. Kids nowadays don’t understand freedom.”
Becoming a lawyer was a foregone conclusion, and after he passed the bar in 1976, Wachtel went to work at the in-house general counsel’s office for Bank of America, where he stayed for five years.
In 1982, he moved on to Leland, Parachini, Steinberg, Matzger & Melnick in San Francisco, specializing in land use, real estate and representing large financial institutions. The Wachtels moved to Mill Valley two years later.
Wachtel stayed at the firm for 27 years but became ready for a change.
“After a certain point it becomes inertia,” he says.
Since they both coached little league 15 years ago, Wachtel knew fellow Mill Valley attorney and current planning commission David Rand. The pair got together occasionally and talked about the possibility of moving into an office with one another, sharing common expenses but retaining their own private practices.
In 2009, those conversations got serious, and Wachtel left Leland, Paranchini and moved into a shared space with Rand at Shelter Bay in 2010. Wachtel brought all of his clients from his old firm with him, as well as some others.
“It’s a breath of fresh air,” Wachtel says of being on his own after nearly three decades inside a law firm. “It’s an exciting change and a little more frightening because you really have keep your eye out for where the next client is going to come from. There’s no safety net. But there’s an excitement that comes with that.”
From Coach to Mayor
Wachtel’s deep involvement in the local community dates back to his role as president of board for when he and Leslie enrolled their eldest son David there. That service continued onto , with Leslie digging into the PTA and Ken getting involved with little league and the soccer club. Coaching morphed into administration and Ken Wachtel became the club’s president in 1997.
“I served four years of a two year term,” Wachtel says, noting that his fond memories of his own father coaching him in soccer made it an easy decision.
Wachtel later transitioned to the planning commission, where he served for six years. Wachtel says despite that stint, his subsequent unsuccessful run for City Council in 2005 and his three years on the council, his year as mayor in 2011 was a different animal that he couldn’t have tamed without one thing: a wife who not only appreciated his service but had long made her own mark in that regard.
“We just evolved into it,” Leslie Wachtel says. “It takes a lot of understanding for the partner of the other person. You have to be simpatico that this is something that you value. But it was never an issue.”
While his humorous nature can sometimes hide Wachtel’s seriousness about the business of City Hall, it can also distract from his abilities as a dogged campaigner. As he and Leslie racked up swarms of endorsements for last November, he never missed a chance to hand out a button or a sign.
And he’s always had an ace in the hole. Make that the envelope.
Starting early in his law career, Wachtel used the law directory, which back then included the birthdates of attorneys, to find the born-on dates of attorneys he was opposing. He’d send them birthday cards.
“They just had no way of dealing with that,” he says. “It had never happened to them and it threw them off-guard.”
After his unsuccessful run against Marshall and Berman for City Council in 2005, Wachtel kept a list of names of the people who did anything for his campaign and sent them all birthday cards. That list has grown to include 1,200 people.
Wachtel buys the cards in bulk and sends cards each Friday for the upcoming week. There have been some address changes and some unfortunate deliveries to elderly residents who’d since passed away, but otherwise the system works, Wachtel says.
“He’s an incredibly warm and gracious person,” Waldeck says. “The guy’s a really good friend and he’s been kind of like a big brother to me at times.”
As for his with City Manager Jim McCann in 2011, the pair’s birthdays are up again at the end of the month, with Wachtel turning 60 on Feb. 1.
“Wait ‘til you see this one,” Leslie Wachtel says.
As anyone who saw his “I’ll be mayor in…” hourglass countdown app can attest, Wachtel looked forward to being mayor. He’s already revived the app for his next term - in three years. Until then, he says he plans to work just as hard, and reaching out the community on the .
“He did a really good job,” Marshall says with a laugh. “But now he’s just like the rest of us.”